Spring look around the Big East
Who will start at quarterback for Connecticut and South Florida? Which sophomore surprised during Pittsburgh's spring practices? Is West Virginia confident in its passing attack? The Big East notebook addresses those questions and much more.
With games at Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Louisville and West Virginia, the Bearcats have one of the toughest road schedules in the country. "It's up there," says coach Mark Dantonio, comparing it to the country's tougher slates. "Last year, we had the 12th-ranked schedule in the United States coming into the season. This one is every bit as tough, if not more so." Dantonio vows to open up his offense, and a group of solid tight ends should help. Junior Brent Celek and freshmen Kazeem Alli and Connor Barwin combined for 10 catches for 152 yards in the team's first spring scrimmage. The Bearcats finally are ready to move into a new facility that includes what Dantonio called the biggest weight room in the Big East -- an 18,000-square-foot palace with a million dollars worth of weights. "It was all done first class," Dantonio said. "It'll definitely impact our program. Since I came here, in January of 2004, that's been a vision. We've recruited on that vision for the last two years. Our recruiting has definitely gotten better."
Before the Blue-White Game -- attended by 9,000 fans this past Saturday at Rentschler Field -- coach Randy Edsall announced his four captains: safety Alan Barnes, tailback Terry Caulley, defensive tackle Rhema Fuller and cornerback Jahi Smith. The quarterback competition continues to rage. Front-runner D.J. Hernandez had a so-so spring game (12-for-28 for 135 yards), and last year's starter, Matt Bonislawski, struggled badly (3-for-13 for 42 yards and three interceptions). "I'm going to take the whole spring and evaluate the whole spring," Edsall said. "You see moments out there. D.J. has got to just settle down and not try to make plays all the time. He needs to take things that are there and try not to rush things. It's the same thing with [Bonislawski]. They just have to relax a little bit." Former walk-on Justin DeRubertis, a local product, has played well at strongside linebacker. With James Hargrave (2003-05) and Jamal Lundy (2000-02), that position has known only two starters the past six years.
The Cardinals entered the spring with three spots open on their offensive line. Marcel Benson, a 6-6, 315-pound junior-college transfer, and junior Breno Giacomini (6-7, 290) are battling for a tackle spot. Giacomini played tackle and tight end last season. George Bussey, a 6-2, 295-pound former walk-on, has emerged at one of the guard spots. Coach Bobby Petrino is looking for a big year from senior middle linebacker Nate Harris, a juco transfer who started slow last season but came on late and has a chance to become one of the better linebackers in the Big East and perhaps the country. Harris originally signed with Miami and drew heavy interest from LSU. He had two sacks in the Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech, plus games of 13 and 10 tackles against UConn and Cincinnati, respectively. He finished the season with 11½ tackles for loss. Senior Zach Anderson is holding down Elvis Dumervil's old defensive end spot, but all eyes will be on Deantwan "Peanut" Whitehead (6-6, 245) when summer camp begins. Louisville beat out the likes of Alabama and Auburn to get Whitehead.
Sophomore Tommie Campbell proved to be one of the spring surprises after switching from safety to weakside linebacker. Campbell might be the fastest player on the team, but the question is whether he can hold up physically. He weighs 202 pounds and has a slight upper body, although defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads likes the way Campbell explodes into blockers. Senior linebacker H.B. Blades created a buzz at Heinz Field during the team's Blue-Gold Game when he crushed tailback LaRod Stephens on a pass over the middle. Conor Lee, battling David Abdul for the kicker spot, drilled a 49-yard field goal in the spring game. That battle will not be decided until the summer. The coaching staff feels good about backup quarterback Bill Stull, who completed 11 of 16 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns at the Blue-Gold Game. The running game still has a "long ways to go," according to coach Dave Wannstedt, although fullback Conredge Collins busted a 39-yard run in the scrimmage and Stephens had an excellent spring.
Senior fullback Brian Leonard said the feeling on campus is profoundly different these days, what with the once-laughable Scarlet Knights coming off their first bowl appearance in 28 years. "It's a humongous change," Leonard said. "You wouldn't believe it. We didn't even win our bowl game, and people are telling us congratulations and patting us on the back. We know we're getting better because our expectations are raised. Kids are coming around, wearing your jersey. I see No. 23 jerseys [Leonard's number] all over, and [tailback] Ray Rice's jerseys on sale. [As a] freshman, people had no idea who you were." Redshirt freshman quarterback Jabu Lovelace has wowed coaches with his athleticism and quick grasp of the offense and is threatening to snag more playing time than anyone had figured, although sophomore Mike Teel remains the starter. Kick-return specialist Willie Foster, the reigning Big East Special Teams Player of The Year, had toe surgery and missed most of spring drills but is expected to be ready for the season.
Who's the starting quarterback? That was the biggest question surrounding the Bulls going into spring drills, and it remained the biggest question at the conclusion of the team's annual spring game. One thing's for certain: Sophomore Carlton Hill didn't do much to improve his standing. Coach Jim Leavitt acknowledged before spring drills that the job was Hill's to lose. Well, he might have lost it. He completed just 5 of 15 passes for 40 yards in the scrimmage, putting the final touch on his so-so spring. Freshman Matt Grothe completed 11 of 19 for 167 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, and senior Pat Julmiste went 6-for-13 for 87 yards and a touchdown. Julmiste, the starter for most of last season, also rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, Leavitt told The Tampa Tribune that if the season started that day, Julmiste likely would have been the starter based on experience. Others are beginning to believe Grothe will win the job. A crowd of 3,862 attended the scrimmage, which was held at Raymond James Stadium. Junior receiver Anthony "Amp" Hill capped his impressive spring with eight receptions for 87 yards.
Coach Greg Robinson likes what he has seen from senior quarterback Perry Patterson, who completed 9 of 11 passes for 150 yards in the team's annual spring game. "From Day 1, you could see there's been a change," Robinson said. "His recall and understanding of the offense and of what we're doing is much improved. A light has gone on in a lot of areas." Robinson said that despite a change in offensive coordinators (Brian White replaced Brian Pariani), the terminology and philosophy of the offense remain largely the same. Max Meisel, a 5-foot-4, 149-pound walk-on receiver, had two catches for 23 yards in the spring game, much to the delight of the crowd of 2,677 at the Carrier Dome. Teammates carried Meisel off the field at the end of the game, bringing him to the stands so the fans could get his autograph. "That was cool, " Meisel told The Associated Press. "I wasn't expecting that." Junior receiver Rice Moss was a standout in spring camp. He caught four passes for 78 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
The talk coming out of the Gold-Blue Game centered on what coach Rich Rodriguez hopes is an improved passing attack. The Mountaineers averaged only 116 passing yards per game last season. "We've got to be prepared to throw the ball more," Rodriguez said. "Teams can outnumber you. They can force you at times to throw the football, and I'm confident that we'll be ready to do that. We have the talent there." Sophomore quarterback Pat White completed 23 of 30 passes for 215 yards in the scrimmage, including a 59-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Brandon Barrett. Rodriguez loved that the spring game was televised on ESPNU. "A lot of our kids' parents who didn't get to come up got to watch it on TV," Rodriguez said. "And we really like it for recruiting because prospects from around the country get to check us out." Pernell Williams was moved back to tailback after a brief stint at cornerback. Rodriguez hopes to be at least four deep at that offensive position, with plenty of insurance behind talented starter Steve Slaton.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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